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Bernar Venet’s remarkable collection of modern masters grew out of his friendship with some of the leading artists of his generation. The conceptual artist is in the process of creating a foundation, which will safeguard his extraordinary home and collection for the future
The French conceptual artist Bernar Venet doesn’t quite move mountains but he is in the process of changing the course of a river; the Nartuby in Le Muy, Provence, with its cascade of waterfalls that once powered the old sawmill that he has made his home. During a recent flood much was damaged and swept away. Now bulldozers are creating dams, while the banks are being reinforced with tree trunks and sacking and planted with hundreds of shrubs and trees. It’s not quite the building of Versailles, but it is a major project. Set back from the road in the sleepy French village, a hive of activity goes on unseen behind the property’s satin steel gates, in the four and a half hectares of sweeping lawns, minimalist buildings and displays of contemporary sculpture.
M. Venet spent many of his formative years in New York and has an unconventional background. Born in 1941 in the village of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban in Haute-Provence, he moved to Nice in 1963 where he met Arman and the artists involved in the New Realist movement. ‘I came from a very poor family that hardly knew what art was,’ he says, yet by the age of 11 he was displaying a precocious talent for drawing, and by 14 was already selling his work. So it came as a blow when he failed to get into art school. However, a stint as a scene painter at the Opéra de Nice when he was 17, before his military service in Algeria, thrust him into a new cultural milieu and taught him not to fear working on a grand scale.
But it was New York that was to cement his aesthetic preferences. ‘My taste is very sober, very Zen,’ he says. ‘I don’t much like old things. I like things that are new and different, which is why I design my own furniture.’ In New York, in the 1960s, when he didn’t have much money, he made lightweight geometric furniture from plywood. At Le Muy he has fabricated it all from sheets of steel. Each chair weighs 60kg, he says, as I struggle to move one. ‘They don’t come to you – you go to them.’ It was in New York that he became friends with Sol LeWitt, Frank Stella and Donald Judd, excited by an art which, unlike that of Europe, was not based on intuitive compositions but on concepts. He tells me, when I visit his extraordinary home, which is part gallery, part sculpture park and part artistic laboratory, that whilst his thinking is very philosophical and ‘French’, it was the power and physicality of the Americans that attracted him.
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2012
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Published in Apollo Magazine